Rules for Rejection

Post Date: April 4th, 2009

Today’s Word Count for the Novel: 119, 178. 475 words added.

Page Count for the novel: 432

“I have always felt fortunate in having been strongly influenced by my father, a self-made man who is a living example that with hard work you can accomplish anything. Absorbing his worldview, I came to believe that people were neither lucky nor unlucky. Life was more like a game of odds in which you could increase your chances of winning simply by doing more than the next guy. It wasn’t about being in the right place at the right time but about being in a lot of places at a lot of times, showing up even when the odds seemed lousy. How this applies to writers is somewhat obvious, but I’ll belabor the point: submitting your work fifty times or revising it as many times as you have to may be what separates the sung from the unsung.”

— Betsy Lerner, The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers

It’s been two weeks of several rejections arriving within days of each other, yet I can’t say I’m feeling the pain. With what I call The System in place, a way to frame and catalog those no’s as they arrive, I’ve got a built-in palliative, call it prescription med, with thankfully no side effects yet noted.

I talk a great story, don’t I? But really, here’s how The System works.

1. Write a short story. Have at least one person I trust look at the second or third draft.
2. Let the story percolate a while, a month or more.
3. Revise again, this time working with at least two drafts in hard copy. (Amazing the number of errors I catch that way.) At least one draft should be read aloud.
4. Submit to three or four literary magazines simultaneously with the following plan:
a. Read guidelines carefully.
b. Submit online, saving money and trees, and to track progress. (Note that this process does prevent submission to several magazines that only accept hard copy.)
c. Always include a cover letter, using a query letter template.
d. Submit to at least three magazines simultaneously. Acknowledge your simultaneous submission.
e. Keep a Submission Record with a table: columns for date submitted, guidelines, and response. Color code all submissions under review with yellow (the yellow light of, Caution, wait and see).
f. When a rejection arrives, update the Submission Record (I color the entry red).
g. Identify another magazine and submit.
h. Wait until you have heard back on one story before submitting another to the same magazine.
i. Keep an eye out for other magazines to submit to. Read everything from author bios for writing conferences, writers’ magazines (submit and contest areas), to list-servs, to short story anthologies. Build a list.
5. Be led by the passion to revise. It’s an intuitive process, but here’s how I explain it: I know when I’ve received enough rejections (it may be two or it may be five) to say, Time to rewrite. Often three or four months have passed, which gives me a clearer eye.
6. Mark all acceptances and finalist standings in green, the verdant color of hope!

So you believe me when I say, “When a rejection arrives, I simply turn to my Submission Record and ask, “Where to?”

Did I say I was feeling no pain? Remember: if a person uses drug analogies, then maybe you shouldn’t hold her responsible for anything she says.

But seriously: The System helps, especially when no one out there hears my shouts. As Lerner says, success is the result of work ethic and not just talent. Sure, there are those gifted ones discovered scribbling in a café or blogging about their personal lives, book deals windfalling their way without sweat or tears. Sometimes it would seem writers would do better making a reality-show embarrassment of themselves before spending three quiet years writing. There will be those who are so gifted they produce brilliant first drafts. Meanwhile, my first drafts? Rough like a five o’clock shadow on one of my Italian ancestors; verbose like a Victorian romance novel whose narrator just won’t shut up. Not for the discerning eye. Yet when my third or fourth draft gets birthed, looking viable, but unbeknownst to me is weak and unable to breathe on its own, The System sends it back into the incubator where it can grow to maturity.

Can you tell my blogs are second drafts?

My System can also explain the rush of recent nos. I have four stories in circulation now at approximately twelve magazines. With increased systematization comes increased response.
Showing up even when the odds seemed lousy. Fifty times you should submit. The System, like Lerner, is there to tell me things take time. Look at each column and row of the Record, and I see worthy time invested, time it takes to get something done right. On the heels of four or five rejections the last few weeks comes a royalty check from a book I published in 2004, after years of labor and heartache. This book, The Compassionate Classroom, has sold not quite 1000 copies, but a few months ago, a publisher in Malaysia purchased translation rights. This deal raised my royalty check to something noticeable (noticeable in my realm of earnings!) The point is, five years later, I’m still seeing rewards — small ones, but rewards nonetheless. And a few weeks before, a colleague approached me to begin a new book project together. We’d enjoyed a good partnership before co-authoring a past book, so this was a nice confirmation new adventures await.

I look to my father, a role model for try and try again, not only with his novel but with every endeavor he’s attempted, and I know like Lerner where I get my worldview from. We share a hopeful stance someone out there wants to hear what we’ve got to say, and we follow it up with queries here, there, and here and there again.

Writing Goal: Finish hard-copy edits on 50 more pages and enter into electronic copy. My goal: 150,000 – 170,000 words and a complete fourth draft ready for editing by mid June. I am planning a writer’s retreat to consider the novel in a few days, to really get a glimpse of it as a whole.

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.


A Time You Were Told No

Think of times you have been told no. Were you doing something wrong? Were you doing something you thought was right?

Describe each time.

As you describe the time you did something wrong, explain why you were wrong and why it was good someone told you no.

When you describe the time you did something write, explain why you were right and why it was not so good that someone told you no. How would you explain to this person now your feelings about what you did?

If you could go back to either time, would you? Why or why not? Would you do things differently?

Secondary and Adult

When is someone telling you no a good thing?

Think about a mistake you have made or even a good choice you once made where someone stopped you or told you no. Even if the encounter was unpleasant, looking back, you now see this person was helpful to you. Why? How? How can no be a good thing? Explain by describing the time or writing a letter to that person in thanks for what s/he did.


  1. bobmust says:

    That’s a great perspective on the overdrawn process of inspiration-to-written-story-to-publication! I hope your blog readers, the ones who aspire to write and publish, take due note.

  2. Lyn Hawks says:

    Thanks, Bob. I say, whatever it takes to keep yourself going. You have to cling to your own truth when the world seems to be interested in other things. I was reading about a novelist who wrote his book in 1989 and was told through the nineties there was no market for it. Suddenly in 2000, people had an interest.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Enjoyed your rejection post. For all struggling writers your suggestions are very helpful. I too have suffered the “slings and arrows” of repeated nos.

    I’ll share with you the notes that agents have sent me over the years:
    1)”Thanks for the query, but we’ll pass. Good luck”

    2)”Althouhg your manuscript doesn’t fill the agency’s needs at the moment, we are pleased you thought of us….”

    3)”As interesting as your book sounds, I don’t believe I would be the best agent to represent your work….”

    4) “Not for me – Thanks anyway”

    5) “We maintain a fairly small list, so often must turn away projects that might otherwise be suitable….”

    6)”I am forced to be extremely selective when considering new clients. Please remember that htis is only one opinion in a highly subjective business….”

    7) “Unfortunately the project you describe does not suit our list at this time….”

    8)”I’m sorry but I just didn’t find myself as caught up in the story as I would have hoped.”

    9)”I can only represent material that greatly excites or interests me….”

    And so on. You get the point. You can tell a lot about the agent by how he rejects your hard labors.

    Those that take a moment to personally pen a brief note and sign it says a lot more than the standard boilerplate or leave it to the intern to reply. “8 and 9” above at least give a clue as to why the subject matter of the manusript didn’t fly. That is helpful in the revision process.

    Despite the rejections, I plan to resend the manuscript back to some of the same ones abeit a different title, different beginning chapters and totally revised query letter. It will be interesting to see what happens.


  4. bobmust says:

    Since I’ve received all, I believe, of these rejections verbatim, I have to guess they’re canned responses, although individualized for/by the agents.

  5. Lyn Hawks says:

    I believe they tweak their templates just as I tweak my query templates. The fact that Anon can take #’s 8 and 9 back to the revision grindstone is impressive. When you get such generic criticism (“wasn’t caught up”) then you have to wade through your prose saying, What can I do to get someone caught up? (If that’s your goal.) It’s always mine, because if a story doesn’t transport, then most readers won’t stay for the ride. You can see I’m not much of an experimental or metafiction type.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Lyn and Bob:

    I looked at a query/synopsis letter written by a friend who subsequently had five adventure/thriller novels published. He did not follow the standard advice on how to prepare a one page boiler plate query letter that many agents seem to recommend. Instead he used a two-page query/synopsis format to tell the story line. Apparently it succeeded.

    What has been your experiences in writing query letters and what form do you follow?


  7. Lyn Hawks says:

    My queries for short stories are very short and businesslike, naming the title, word count, and a one-line synopsis of the story. I have many drafts of my novel’s query, and it gives a 300-word or less synopsis. I think that while the standard query format of hook, synopsis, credentials is a great format to follow, there is always the writer who begins with a confident voice and brings the agent/slush pile reader in from the get-go. And if your synopsis is compelling, you can break with conventional wisdom.

  8. bobmust says:

    I always begin with a brief paragraph to solicit the agent’s representation, and try to compose something intriguing about the book to “hook” the agent. (Hard)

    Then I synopsize the book in one paragraph. (VERY hard)

    In a third paragraph, I give my writer’s “resume.” (Easy)
    Most agents want to see only one page, so be brief!